Play On!

Evolving Trends & Innovations in Playground Design


In 1906, the Playground Association of America was formed to promote the ideas and benefits of playgrounds, a relatively new concept. The organization assisted with design, layout and construction, and advised on the activities and conduct to occur on the playgrounds, which typically were separate play sections and athletic fields, often supervised. Manufacturing companies took notice and saw a need for playground equipment, which was built with galvanized steel pipes, chains and ladders. Early apparatus included jungle gyms, swings, merry-go-rounds and other twirling contraptions.

Many variations of those earliest features are still popular. But designers, manufacturers and communities are always on the hunt for innovative play ideas and products—striving to strike a balance between exercise, education, social interaction and just plain fun!

Finding a Theme

As we look at how playgrounds are evolving today, let's start with theming, which has become more prevalent in recent years. Scott Roschi, director of design for a Delano, Minn.-based playground design firm, explained how park planners will reach out to community members to get their input, uncovering ideas leading to the creation of meaningful playground themes that are often connected to the local history.

Tom Norquist, senior vice president of a Fort Payne, Ala.-based playground equipment manufacturer and marketing committee chair for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and the Voice of Play, agrees, and noted how theming around local history and culture allow children to learn while they play. "For example, a park may have a Wild West theme, or perhaps a playspace with a railroad theme as a reference to the area's past as a transportation hub."

Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company focused on play and recreation research, programming and products, has also witnessed an increase in theming, "… especially in communities that are associated with a historical event or located in an environment they wish to align with," she said.

One example she cited is the Washington Park Fort playground in Cincinnati, created to symbolize the rich heritage of the city. Along with a boardwalk and stage, it features a play castle, sandbox, musical instruments, dual slides, a canal boat in a stream and a climbing wall based on Cincinnati's historic architecture.

Not all themes are history-based. The playground within the Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro, Md., boasts a spectacular Wizard of Oz theme—the 80-foot-tall trees making a perfect setting for the Emerald Forest. Kids can experience Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's Kansas farm, Dorothy's house, Munchkin Land, the poppy field, Toto's doghouse, the hot air balloon, and the Emerald City. Dorothy's ruby red slippers were adapted to be playground slides. A poured-in-place safety surface mimics the Yellow Brick Road.

Other themes for sparking the imagination include boats, space, military, science, sports and music. Norquist said a lot of effort goes into a playground's theming to give it the "Wow!" factor. "The area could have a common thread relating to a theme like dinosaurs—a dinosaur egg spinner, a large dinosaur structure that encompasses a slide down the tail, spring platform equipment shaped like dinosaur footprints and more."

Michael Laris, chief product officer at a Lewisburg, Pa.-based playground equipment manufacturer, said his company also is fielding more requests for themed play equipment, but they take a more cautious approach. "Children bring their own imagination to the playground. If they need a ship for their play, they'll turn a castle into a ship," he said.

He observes how usually a themed playground is a vision of adults and not requested by children. "I firmly believe that each playground should be unique, but theming isn't always the way to go," he said. "We like designing so that we're giving clues toward a theme, but not be too specific so that we leave room for the imagination."

Going Natural

Nature and nature-play are also figuring more prominently into playground planning. The benefits of connecting kids to nature have been well documented in numerous studies over the past decade. Research shows that children's social, psychological, academic and physical health is positively affected when they have frequent contact with nature.


Norquist said he's seen a substantial increase in nature-based theming, but that the point is not just to make a piece of equipment that looks like a tree, but rather to build a space for play that exists in nature and incorporates real trees. "Nature helps children expand their imaginations, and the nature-play theme leaves the opportunity wide open for a tree to become a make-believe rocket ship."

These spaces are carefully designed, incorporating natural and native species and materials. "We often try to combine the natural setting with elements of a built environment like swings and slides," Norquist added. "Some even incorporate elements like butterfly gardens and greenhouses."

Spencer agrees with the importance of mixing elements of nature with the play experience. Her company has partnered with groups like the Children and Nature Network to promote nature and play. They've also sponsored extensive research on the subject with the Natural Learning Initiative at NC State University. And studies show that settings that combine the natural environment with the built one get the highest use from people.

"There's no reason why a playground cannot be surrounded by elements of nature that enhance the play experience with sight, sound and beauty. Trees provide shade, loose parts, like pinecones, to play with, and attract birds, whose sounds are a calming complement to the environment," Spencer said. She also cited studies showing that higher levels of play are supported by play spaces where nature and equipment were integrated.

These days, childhood obesity rates and increasingly sedentary lifestyles are a big concern. And with kids busier than ever—and spending much of their free time glued to electronic devices—it's crucial to encourage them to get outdoors. Spencer wonders, "If our children don't love and appreciate nature, then who will protect it when they are the adult decision-makers of the world?"

Starting in the late 1800s, the 1,600-acre Peck Farm in Geneva, Ill., housed 2,000 Merino sheep. It's since been subdivided, but the park district retains some of the land for athletic fields, bike paths, prairie restoration and a park. Within the park—in a pine grove—sits the Hawks Hollow Nature Playground. Upon entering, two things stick out on the Playground Rules sign: Turn Off Electronics and Be Loud!

The two-story rustic wooden play apparatus resembles a fort—featuring ramps, swinging bridges, ropes and climbing nets, lookouts with fixed telescopes and slides. It has interactive features like pulleys and a gutter-like contraption for rolling pinecones down. It's surrounded by log benches, a maze, musical instruments, balance beams, and signs which show and discuss the birds, insects and plants that abound. There's a waterfall, stream and bridges, and kids are encouraged to use the mud canvas—a wall they can draw on with mud. There are small hideouts made of sticks and branches, and a giant bird's nest kids can go in. Nearby sits a pavilion and a fire pit with stone seating. The original five-story silo is open for kids to explore, and each level has a different painting depicting a historic period on the farm. Down a path is an observation deck with fixed binoculars overlooking a pond and marsh, where kids can search for birds, reptiles or pirates. The original farmhouse now houses a museum and gift shop, and there's a butterfly house nearby.

Building Inclusiveness

It is said that "play is the work of childhood," and most would agree that it's an essential tool in a child's healthy development. Playgrounds are a place where kids get exercise and have fun, yes, but they also build social relationships and develop physical and cognitive skills. But for people of varying abilities or with special needs, not all playgrounds are welcoming.

An accessible playground is designed to meet the minimum requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But ADA compliance simply means that someone in a wheelchair can enter a playground, but not necessarily use any of the play equipment. And, out of the population who has a disability, only 10 percent use a wheelchair. Ninety percent have cognitive issues such as autism, sensory disorders, visual and hearing impairments, etc. And since many parents and caretakers also have disabilities, more inclusive play spaces would benefit them as well.


Fortunately, these issues are receiving more attention than ever. More all-inclusive playgrounds are being built each year, inspiring designers and manufacturers to consider things in a different light. Laris believes that being inclusive is no longer about mobility devices, but about bringing people of all abilities together. "We strive to include all types of children within the same play space—not by making special, different things for various users, but rather by designing something that can be used in a multitude of ways," he said.

Megan Damcevski, associate product manager at a Huntersville, N.C.-based playground equipment manufacturer, said that inclusive designs are on the rise as more people recognize the value of play and the benefits for children to play alongside their peers. "Play can provide an appropriate outlet for children struggling to express themselves, while helping them to navigate their world in a fun way," she said.

Spencer noted that access, cozy spaces, sensory input and use of color are some of the inclusive features to strive for, and she's happy to see that companies are beginning to address the aspect of cognitive issues. But she also pointed out that a truly great play space doesn't call out what it has for this disability or that disability, it simply serves everyone intuitively, and all people that use the space understand how to play there. "Looking at the whole picture is a necessity," she said. "Inclusion goes far beyond a marketing campaign—it's a philosophy that must be embraced on all levels to work in the greatest way possible."

The San Jose Rotary PlayGarden in San Jose, Calif., is a playground created for children of all abilities. The idea of providing multiples of the same experiences was the guiding force behind the design. A wheelchair-accessible earthen overlook allows kids to become familiar with the environment and feel less inhibited upon entering. There are retreat areas for those who get over-stimulated. All surfaces leading to all equipment—which is spread out—are accessible. Other amenities include kinetic and textural elements providing sensory play; raised and ground-level sand and water tables accessible with transfer-down platforms; a wheelchair-friendly merry-go-round; additional handholds on all equipment; slides of varying heights and sizes, including a double-wide; and several types of swings for all abilities, including an ADA chair and a disc pod for multiple users. The sliding hill has stair access with handrails, stone climbing access and a pathway that is wheelchair-accessible from two directions, with a transfer platform provided at the top. Features like these allow all children to play as peers.

Making Music

Another trend gaining traction is installing outdoor musical instruments in playgrounds. And while music plays an important role in all kid's lives, it's even more profound for people with autism and cognitive issues. Scientists say that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. Music can provide an effective way to stimulate speech development, aid in cognitive and motor development, and be a means to communicate or connect with people. It helps express feelings, and tap into memories and emotions.

There are many types of outdoor instruments available in varying sizes, timbres and tones. Common examples include chimes, marimbas, xylophones, bells and various percussion instruments. Many of these are tuned so that there are no wrong notes—anyone can pick out their own melody instantly.

The Magical Bridge inclusive playground in Palo Alto, Calif., has a 24-string laser harp, created by artist Jen Lewin. When a user breaks one of the laser beams, the harp creates a sound based on how quickly the person was moving and on the height of their hand or wheelchair. Many different sounds can be programmed into the harp.

Taking Risks

In recent years, many have argued that children are becoming too overprotected. And now, new analysis of existing research finds that kids who engage in thrilling, risky activities may be healthier—both physically and psychologically. Studies from the University of British Columbia determined that risky outdoor play is not only good for children's health, but also encourages creativity, social skills, confidence and resilience. Professionals believe that kids should be given the space to explore dangerous situations such as climbing and exploring alone in order to gain an awareness of danger and manage risks. If kids are only offered safe situations, they might not learn how to manage risk and promote safety. With this in mind, adventure play—also called free play, rough and tumble play, risky play, and self-directed play—has become a hot topic.


The community of Delta, British Columbia, wanted to update its Annieville Playground with riskier equipment after a public health expert told the council that kids who play safe when they're young show more signs of depression and anxiety later in life. So, they're looking at neighboring Richmond, which recently updated its Terra Nova Adventure Play Environment with a 35-foot tall treehouse, a steep, twisting slide and 110-foot-long zip lines.

Designers and manufacturers seem to agree with the benefits of risky play, but are concerned foremost with keeping their playgrounds safe. Laris believes that we've bubble-wrapped our children, and that kids need to test themselves in small challenges so that they learn with their own bodies and experiences what they can manage and what's too risky. "Of course, all hazards should be removed from any play environment," he said. "But within that space, challenge should be provided that meets a child's developmental stage and helps them to grow to the next level."

Kit Steven, sales rep for a Monett, Mo.-based commercial play equipment manufacturer, pointed out that there's a difference between actual risk and perceived risk, and that we should push the envelope with the perception of risk while still keeping it safe. "This may look like a net bridge that spans eight feet between two structures and allows kids to feel as though they may or may not make it across," he said. "The reality is that they're safe, but the perception is that they're floating over the ground on a mesh-style bridge that's open to the elements. Will they cross the rickety bridge or not?"

The Berkeley Adventure Playground in Berkeley, Calif., is run by the city's Parks and Rec Department and staffed by well-trained adults, but kids are encouraged to design and build structures on their own. The park has sheds, a zip line and fort-building competitions. Kids can hammer, saw and paint. There's climbing, sliding, swinging and jumping on kid-built forts, boats and towers.

Kids get down and dirty at the Ithaca Children's Garden in Ithaca, N.Y., where nature-play meets adventure playground. Some of the many features include the tadpole-filled Rice Paddy Pond, the solar-powered Kids Kitchen, the Wildflower Meadow, and wheelchair-accessible raised garden beds containing vegetables, herbs, flowers and dwarf fruit trees. There are two types of honeybee hives, and Cluckingham Palace- a moveable chicken coop, which benefits the gardens. But the crown jewel is the Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone, where kids are encouraged to play with water, sand and clay. They can climb on logs and boulders, and build forts with straw bales, stumps and cardboard.

Expanding the Audience

But why should kids have all the fun? After all, science tells us that play benefits people of all ages. Play releases endorphins and dopamine, which facilitate feeling happier and less anxious. Of course, there are adult basketball, softball, kickball and dodgeball leagues. And lately we've seen pop-up adult bouncy castles, ball pits and Slip-N-Slides. In Queens, N.Y., a vacant lot is being turned into an adult playground, with all-weather ping-pong tables, volleyball courts and fitness equipment. But what about combining traditional playgrounds with adult-friendly components so that everyone can play together?


Norquist feels that one of the best new trends in public play environments is the increase in multigenerational fitness equipment. He says that no longer do parents or caretakers have to be bystanders while a younger child plays, they can go to the park and be active, too. "We're seeing a resurgence of adults desiring to play—they want to swing because they know it's good for them. Play provides numerous benefits to adults. It improves their sense of balance, helps them stay focused, and is a natural way to relieve stress."

Challenge courses—modern takes on obstacle courses—are also trending in play areas. An automated timing device allows participants to time themselves through the course, providing fitness and competition. Spencer said, "Challenge courses are one of the most amazing innovations in the last few years, as they are truly family-friendly. The last time I was at the course at Hornet's Nest Park in Charlotte, N.C., I saw dads competing against daughters, even grandparents against grandkids."

Additional adult-friendly components popular now include updated seesaws able to accommodate multiple users, and a swing that seats two people face-to-face, so an adult can swing with a young child. Other mixed-age amenities supplementing playgrounds include dog parks and the very successful disc golf courses.

Looking to the Future of Play

Play—for all ages—has been around forever. And those in the business of play are always looking forward. Regarding current must-haves and new innovations, Steven mentioned innovations creating the next generation of a zip line, but with a roller coaster feel. "Imagine grabbing onto a handle, jumping off a ledge and gliding around a set course—up and down—of up to 80 feet. This is the future of play!"

Laris described a whole new merry-go-round experience—very inclusive, multigenerational and having a level of risk if one chooses. It may "look a bit spacey like a UFO, and give children a play experience that fills our natural desire to spin, go fast, and laugh together."

Norquist concurred on the merry-go-rounds and other dizzy play items, and noted that obstacle and low-rope courses with cabling items are also becoming extremely popular. And, back to those earliest play features, he stated, "An old favorite with staying power is the swing set."

The writer G. K. Chesterton wrote, "The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground."